Serbia’s national animal, the wolf, is near extirpation but the country’s government is doing nothing to protect it. There are just 12,000 remaining wolves throughout Europe, including a mere 500 in Serbia.

Most Serbians are largely ignorant about the loss of numbers through hunting, which is legal for ten months of the year and in almost all parts of the country, with groups of up to 400 hunters embarking on blood-sport expeditions.

Animal welfare organization Network for Animals (NFA) has discovered that many farmers routinely set traps and lay out poison in the mistaken belief that wolves are hunting their livestock or domestic animals. “In fact,” says Network for Animals (NFA) campaigner Luke Barritt, “wolves’ diet comprises the wild deer and boar of the forests. They are inevitably just being curious when in proximity to a farm or an isolated residential area.”

The wolves suffer horribly slow deaths if caught in a snare, often attempting to gnaw off their own limb. Or they die in agony from poisoning. These measures are not only cruel, but also counter-productive, because wolves play a crucial role in the balance of natural ecosystems. As an apex predator they keep larger animal populations in check, and by shifting the foraging patterns of their prey, wolves contribute to the healthy distribution of nutrients in soils.

“Natural scientists are starting to understand the importance of wolves within nature. Hopefully it’s not too late. Wolves may be revered as a symbol, but ignorance is endangering their survival in Serbia,” says NFA’s Barritt.

The wolf may resonate within their collective consciousness, but unless Serbians change their behaviors, this inspiring animal will exist only in emblems, legends and poetry – not wild and free in their country’s forests and mountains.